When did I first see the cover of Jean Watson’s Stand in he Rain – that strong, elegant black cover with a woman looking as if she has been doing exactly that? And the photograph of the author on the back flyleaf: it could almost be the same woman. Her hair too looks as though it has had a brush with New Zealand weather rather than an encounter with a hairbrush.
It must have struck me, reading the little bio under that photograph, how close to my own life that author’s was – how much closer than most of the authors whose books I was voraciously reading from the library shelves then, most of them British or American.
The bio at the back of the book said Jean Watson had grown up on a farm “near Whangarei”. I too had sat in classrooms looking out at lush grass and dark blue hills. That’s where I’d have been when Stand in the Rain was published – in 1965, by the Pegasus Press, with the dedication “To chance and circumstance”. The little bio said the author was now living in Wellington. And I too was at that end of the North Island by the time I picked up the book, probably in the Hutt Library some time in the early 1970s when I was at secondary school.
As the book’s blurb puts it: “Here is the woman’s side to the New Zealand legend. Here is the girl behind the good keen, deer-killing, possum-trapping, pig-hunting, rabbit-shooting, scrub-cutting, hard-case dinkum-type Kiwi.” It goes on to describe the story as “an amoral tale of young love, told with brilliant simplicity”. The simplicity is very nice. This is the beginning of the book: “Once Auckland seemed a long way from Wellington and a year seemed a long time.” That’s paragraph one, and paragraph two – again one sentence – sets up the theme: “It’s long ago now since the innocence of first loving and the hesitance of first knowing.” The sentences are short. The dialogue rings true – shorts snaps of Kiwi conversation. The narrator looks back, but the story moves forward quickly enough.
It is the story of a romance, the by now failed romance of a young woman named Sarah and a bloke called Abungus. Sarah is fatalistic and wistful and anxious; the anxiety seems to be fuelled by the suspicion that she may be incapable of what is commonly termed “settling down”.
No publisher would tag Stand in the Rain “amoral” now, and I wonder if they only used it then to give the book an air of spiciness along with a whiff of condemnation – as if to imply that if you were bold enough to take the book on you could consider yourself a bit of a social rebel. That “amoral” aspect probably had an appeal for me, but a lot of novels were about people having affairs. What most appealed about Stand in the Rain was the way it reflected the spirit of the age (largely the restlessness) and the spirit of the place – New Zealand, but particularly Wellington. Chapter two begins:
Wellington, New Zealand’s only city with the atmosphere of a city. Many people have written cleverly about Wellington. I can say only that important things always seem to happen to me there. Things I remember… an odd little discussion about life to be remembered with the echo of footsteps from a leaf-shadow patterned path after a party …
… in a flat somewhere among the Terrace gardens where little bridges and high board fences lead to old-fashioned front doors, up narrow steps, dingily carpeted and pervaded by a faint smell of gas …
Tomorrow there would be someone to talk about a book or a poem and listen about the same things and to get advice about ‘what did he mean when he said…?’ and ‘why do he and I always…?’
Wellington is long grass and white railings and a phone ringing in an empty house.
That phone rings quite differently now – chirps rather than rings in many cases, isn’t heard by passers by like those big old heavy phones you hear only occasionally. Stand in the Rain’s Wellington was doomed with Michael Fowler’s mayoralty and the felling of many Victorian buildings. (Glimpses were seen on television recently in the second episode of the pop music doco Give it a Whirl.)
Bridget Williams at Allen&Unwin/Port Nicholson Press brought out a new edition of Stand in the Rain in 1986 – just as the New Zealand of the book was about to change very quickly. If Abungus and Sarah were driving up and down State Highway One nowadays they’d get a shock; they’d be wondering why the post offices had been converted into little junk shops for a start. I went to interview Jean Watson when that new edition came out, to write a story about her for the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, and photographed her out the back of her house in Aro Valley, the washing line getting in there as the background. This was not the first time I’d met the author of a book I’d read in younger days; I’d gone to Rarotonga a few years earlier and come upon Ronald Syme, who had written Gypsy Michael, a book I adored at ten.
Jean Watson asked me not to concentrate too much in the article on her relationship with Barry Crump – on whom the character of Abungus in Stand in the Rain leaned heavily. I didn’t either. But those were the days when you sent your story off on double-spaced A4 pages, and somehow they lost the fourth page – so the emphasis changed.
The other day I went to see whether Stand in the Rain was still in the Wellington Public Library. It was, and in very good shape, that beautiful cover carefully encased in plastic. I went to look in the non-fiction collection for Jean Watson’s Karunai Illam: The story of an orphanage in India (published by Daphne Brassell Associates Press in 1992 and in an updated edition by the Karunai Illam Trust in 2001) because although I was aware of it, I’d never read it.
The body of my own copy of Stand in the Rain has fallen away from the spine now. I bought it second-hand, probably in 1976 since that’s the date I’ve written beside my name – which is under the name of the previous owner. If I did buy it in 1976, it probably came from Smith’s Bookshop in Christchurch, because I was there then, going to university. I climbed the stairs to the New Zealand section of Smith’s Bookshop just recently – what a comforting feeling in a changed world – and checked for Jean Watson books. There were none, though for the record the others are: The Balloon Watchers (1975), The World is an Orange and the Sun (1978), both from Dunmore Press, Flowers from Happyever (Voice Press, 1980), Address to a King (Allen&Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, 1986) and Three Sea Stories (Daphne Brassell, 1994).
I re-read Stand in the Rain every now and again – just come upon it, open it, and then make my way to the end over the next few days. It makes me feel nostalgic. It gives me the same feeling I get from playing the CD of old Peter Cape songs, put out by Steele Roberts recently along with the book of music and lyrics. As well as “Taumarunui” and “Down the Hall on Saturday Night”, there are some very simple, very romantic songs, with the same spirit as Stand in the Rain – “When the Rainbird Sings in the Teatree”, for example, and “Culler’s Lament”. (It’s funny how “gidday” and “bugger” have been taken up by advertising agencies to sell us things, ads made up by people who probably don’t even own a pair of gumboots.) The story always ends the same way, of course – with Sarah asking rhetorically, “And when we sleep will the road unwind dreamlike before us?”
She has just been reflecting that “There are people who will always look in lighted windows and want to be there behind the safety of drawn blinds, and when they are there they’ll suddenly not want it or something will bugger it for them and they will feel the road beneath their feet again …” And I always think, yeah, I know what you mean.
Jane Tolerton is a Wellington writer who also runs Booklovers Bed and Breakfast.